‘The Tomorrow Man’ script fails stars and fascinating characters

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A prepper and a hoarder walk into a grocery store, and therein lies the meet-cute of Noble Jones’ debut feature, “The Tomorrow Man,” an odd little romantic dramedy starring John Lithgow and Blythe Danner.

The film starts with a promising premise, and Jones lays out the details of his main character in a carefully studied, mannered fashion. Lithgow plays Ed, a meticulous doomsday prepper who buys canned goods, batteries and gas every day and stashes it in a secret bunker. He thinks the local news anchor is speaking directly to him and posts on conspiracy theory message boards daily. But when he meets — or rather, stalk — Ronnie (Danner) in his local grocery store, all his obsessive tendencies have a new object of attention and affection, whom he is convinced is of like mind. She also grocery shops a lot and has a penchant for war documentaries.

“The Tomorrow Man” is a story about two very lonely people connecting — if they can only get over their own baggage, which is represented quite literally in the useless stuff they’ve accumulated in their homes. Jones, who wrote, directed and shot the film, is making the switch to writing and directing after a career as a cinematographer and music video director. His voice and point of view is unique, different, and totally his own. But after a promising setup, the film meanders, trying and failing to find some sense of purpose with the two oddball characters and their rich back stories. But Ronnie and Ed just sort of listlessly bounce off each other, trying to make their relationship work despite their issues.

Despite the strange but winning chemistry between Danner and Lithgow, the script ultimately fails the fascinating characters. There are conversations, especially among Ed’s family — his son (Derek Cecil), daughter- in-law (Katie Aselton), and granddaughter (Sophie Thatcher) — where it seems like everyone is speaking in code, but to what end? There are whole swaths of inscrutable dialogue where one has to wonder if the characters are even speaking to each other, or if they’re aliens trying to mimic humanistic indie movie dialogue (think Lithgow’s “Third Rock From The Sun” character in a Sundance movie). This all lends itself to the sense of unease that permeates “The Tomorrow Man,” which can’t decide if it’s an apocalypse movie or a romance. That it lands somewhere in the middle is entirely fair, but never satisfies either movie that it’s trying to be.

In other films, Danner and Lithgow would each be the quirky half of a couple playing off a straight man, so casting the two together leads to some wonderful moments between the veteran actors, stepping outside their comfort zone into something a little more offbeat. One thing’s for certain - Blythe Danner is pure magic. The actress can manage to make any material sing with her singular choices and sheer charisma.

There’s a vaguely sci-fi bent to “The Tomorrow Man,” but it’s less about the apocalypse itself and more about the fear of death, which is coming for us all, in sickness or in mushroom cloud. It takes a roundabout route to get to this overall message, and while Jones’ film gets a bit lost along the way, the film is nevertheless a distinctive debut for the filmmaker as a writer and director.

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